andrewc


quality posts: 4 Private Messages andrewc

Special thanks go to WineWootaholic (WWA) for several topic suggestions, because he wasn't afraid to ask! 

Barrels have been around for a couple of thousand years. While they are now used almost exclusively for wine and spirits, they are extremely versatile containers that had a multitude of applications for most of their history. If you know anyone with the surname of Cooper, they are the descendant of a barrel maker. Barrels have been used to store and move practically everything from soup to nuts: nails, grain and flour, olives, gunpowder, oil, all sorts of beverages, et cetera. They provided sturdy watertight, insect and rodent proof, portable containers. The bent staves of a watertight barrel also allow for easy movement by hand. A single person can readily move hundreds of pounds of goods rapidly across any somewhat flat surface, up a ramp, and even up a broad flight of steps. Imagine trying to move a six hundred pound crate by hand. Barrels were one of the easiest ways to move goods prior to the development of modern-day devices such as forklifts and elevators...

Oak has long been the wood of choice for barrels, and the reasons are pretty easy to guess at: it is plentiful, strong and supple, and generally watertight. The use of oak as a wine “ingredient” is a more modern phenomenon, and somewhat incidental to oak's practical use as storage and shipping containers. Part of the expected aromas and flavors of some regional wine types are acquired tastes based on the properties of the barrels traditionally used in those regions. The contrast of Burgundy and Bordeaux, the two regions with the longest history of small barrel usage, is interesting. The 228 liter (60.23 gallon) pièce of Burgundy is shorter and fatter than the 225 liter (59.44 gallon) Bordeaux barrique, which means that its staves have more curve to them. The staves need to be heated in order to bend them into shape without cracking, and fire is the traditional heat source. Because the pièce must be heated more, its staves are charred more during the bending process, and the resulting “heavy toast” aromas are an expected part of the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir profile, whereas they would be atypical in a Merlot, Cabernet sauvignon or Sauvignon blanc. 

Until the California wine renaissance that began in the late 1960's small barrels were rarely used outside of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Beaulieu used small American oak barrels for their Private Reserve Cabernet sauvignon, but there weren't a lot of others. Because of James Zellerbach's deep pockets and strong desire to emulate the wines of Burgundy, Hanzell was the first winery to use French oak in California, just over 50 years ago. In the mid 1960's Dick Graff, founder of Chalone, was the first to set up a business importing French wine barrels. The use of oak as a winemaking tool, not just a storage vessel, blossomed after that. American consumer preference for strong oak aromas and flavors has even led to increased use of new oak in famous European wine regions such as Burgundy in recent decades. 

There is a common generalization that American oak is inferior to French oak. Of course nothing to do with winemaking is ever that simple. French coopering is a long established tradition, and techniques and products have not changed substantially in recent decades. On the other hand, American oak wine barrels bear virtually no resemblance to the American oak wine barrels of thirty years ago, and coopers of American oak are still actively fine tuning their processes. It must have been ten years ago that Kent Rasmussen proclaimed that there “won't be a single French barrel sold in this country ten years from now.” Of course, ten minutes later he said he would never put his Pinot Noir in American oak :-). 

Thirty years ago the only American oak barrels available were those mass produced for the distilled spirits industry. They were kiln dried, steam bent, cheap and ugly. Most wineries filled them with a strong solution of soda ash for a couple of days to get rid of flavor and tannin, followed by citric acid and hot water. Often they were filled with a cheap wine for a while to further mellow them for use with the better wine. Nadalie in 1980 and Demptos in 1982 were the first two French cooperages to set up shop in the United States. They assembled barrels from imported French staves and also started to cooper American oak using traditional French techniques such as air drying the staves and hand forming the barrels using fire. This first generation of American oak wine barrels was a huge improvement over whiskey barrels, but still dramatically different from French oak barrels. Since then experimentation and winemaker feedback have resulted in considerable refinement of American oak wine barrels. Wood selection (by grain, species and region - from Oregon to Pennsylvania, Minnesota to Arkansas), stave aging and toasting technique have all been adjusted to improve the final product. In blind tastings of barrel trials it is no longer easy, and in some cases virtually impossible, to tell which barrels are French oak and which are American oak. 

Oak for wine barrels is also sourced from throughout eastern Europe, and I've even seen Chinese wine barrels at trade shows, though the level of “craftsmanship” is rather appalling. As a natural product, oak varies not only by source, but tree by tree and even within a single tree. There is more variability within a given region such as Alliers than there is between regions. The best cooperages are very diligent in wood selection and consistent in drying and coopering technique. I'd rather have consistent barrels with a more general source (center of France), than variable barrels with a sexy appellation like Bertranges or Jupilles. 

One of the most common questions I get during cellar tours is, “How often do you need to replace the barrels?” It depends on how much oak aroma and flavor you want in each wine. Some wineries use 100% new oak and sell their barrels after one use. Extraction follows a geometric function, with roughly half the “flavor” being released into the wine during the first year. Some barrels are extracted faster, some slower, but they typically are fairly neutral after three to five years. Because the rate of extraction is asymptotic, barrels never become completely neutral. Extraction rates don't change when you refill barrels with a new wine – there is no equilibrium of extractable components between wood and wine. 

WWA asked, “Why ferment in barrels rather than just aging fermented wine?” The primary reason is flavor integration; The most readily extractable oak components interact with grape components and yeast, giving more complexity, versus having wine flavors plus oak flavors. Also there is a “self-fining“ effect: some of the harsher oak and grape compounds are precipitated during the process, improving the texture and harmony of the wine. The cleaner a wine is when it goes into barrel, the more obvious the oak in the finished product. 

WWA also asked about barrel cleaning and maintenance. Barrels must be either completely full of wine or empty, clean, dry and treated with a bacterial inhibitor such as SO2 to prevent growth of spoilage organisms. Because wine evaporates through the staves, barrels must be “topped up” regularly unless you want to make vinegar or sherry. Barrels are cleaned with a water spray at each racking, and after emptying for bottling they are cleaned more thoroughly (often with ozonated water these days), dried and given a little blast of SO2 gas, which is typically replenished every month or so. If a barrel does show signs of vinegar bacteria growth there are a few ways to try to save it. Soaking with ozonated water or Peroxycarb (sodium percarbonate, the active bleaching ingredient in non-chlorine laundry soaps) are two of the more common approaches. Chlorine is a big no-no due to its interaction with wood and the strong risk of TCA (“cork taint”) formation. If all else fails there's the gasoline treatment: an ounce of gas and a match (THIS IS IN JEST, DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME OR ANYWHERE ELSE). 

For more comments about oak, and specifically about barrel alternatives, please see my Random Ramblings blog from April, 2008, A Paradigm Shift.

The next Random Rambling will address wine microbes, the good the bad and the ugly. If you have any topic suggestions or questions, please send me a PM.

Photo: wine cellar in Chianti, Italy, taken by Flickr user roblisameehan. Used under a Creative Commons license.

kylemittskus


quality posts: 230 Private Messages kylemittskus

This was very very interesting, educational, and enjoyable. Once again, thanks a lot Peter.

What about barrels coming from other regions outside of the US and France? I've seen, and drunk some whites, that used Hungarian oak. Any other regions that are up and coming? Any you've experimented with? (Besides China of course.)

Edit: Just noticed you mentioned Eastern Europe. Anywhere interesting? I assume your "poor craftsmanship" comment was referring to the Chinese barrels.

"If drinking is bitter, change yourself to wine." -Rainer Maria Rilke

"Champagne is a very kind and friendly thing on a rainy night." -Isak Dinesen

joelsisk


quality posts: 9 Private Messages joelsisk

great blog, Peter! And glad woot fixed the post so we're finally able to comment.

I'm surprised we don't hear more about South American oak... I'd think it would be much cheaper to import... though perhaps the cooperage is the real issue?

wombativ


quality posts: 1 Private Messages wombativ
kylemittskus wrote:This was very very interesting, educational, and enjoyable. Once again, thanks a lot Peter.

What about barrels coming from other regions outside of the US and France? I've seen, and drunk some whites, that used Hungarian oak. Any other regions that are up and coming? Any you've experimented with? (Besides China of course.)

Edit: Just noticed you mentioned Eastern Europe. Anywhere interesting? I assume your "poor craftsmanship" comment was referring to the Chinese barrels.



Hungarian oak (and most European oaks) are actually all the same species (I'm going to say Quercus rober, but that's because I'm too lazy to go back and check my notes). I've seen Russian oak lately taking the position Hungarian once did as the cheap alternative to French without the oak lactone content of American oak (now that Hungarian oak prices have gone up consistently the last few years).

That said, I think people put far too much focus on the oak source without acknowledging the huge amount of variation that comes from cooperages. There are studies that have shown the variation from different processes used by different cooperages and even cooper-to-cooper variation within the same cooperage may be a more significant source of extractable flavor variation than whether you used Quercus alba, robur, or sessilis to make the barrel.

PetiteSirah


quality posts: 79 Private Messages PetiteSirah
wombativ wrote:Hungarian oak (and most European oaks) are actually all the same species (I'm going to say Quercus rober, but that's because I'm too lazy to go back and check my notes). I've seen Russian oak lately taking the position Hungarian once did as the cheap alternative to French without the oak lactone content of American oak (now that Hungarian oak prices have gone up consistently the last few years).

That said, I think people put far too much focus on the oak source without acknowledging the huge amount of variation that comes from cooperages. There are studies that have shown the variation from different processes used by different cooperages and even cooper-to-cooper variation within the same cooperage may be a more significant source of extractable flavor variation than whether you used Quercus alba, robur, or sessilis to make the barrel.



I've also seen Slovenian discussed in notes lately.

Hail the victor, the king without flaw
Salute your new master ... Petite Sirah!


"Who has two thumbs and loves Petite Sirah?" ThisGuy!

yumitori


quality posts: 22 Private Messages yumitori


So, left field questions... What do you do with 'used up' barrels?

Do other wineries buy 'vintage' barrels? Or do you just manage your stock so you get as much out of them as possible? Then what?


SonomaBouliste


quality posts: 234 Private Messages SonomaBouliste
kylemittskus wrote:This was very very interesting, educational, and enjoyable. Once again, thanks a lot Peter.

What about barrels coming from other regions outside of the US and France? I've seen, and drunk some whites, that used Hungarian oak. Any other regions that are up and coming? Any you've experimented with? (Besides China of course.)

Edit: Just noticed you mentioned Eastern Europe. Anywhere interesting? I assume your "poor craftsmanship" comment was referring to the Chinese barrels.



The main European sources outside of France are Hungary, Slovenia and Russia. The cost of all is closer to the cost of French oak than American oak. Of these alternative sources, I've only tried Hungarian, and I felt like my money was better spent on French and American. Yes, the craftsmanship comment was referring to Chinese barrels I saw at a trade show.

edit: It looks like wombativ and PS already answered the first question. Sorry

another edit: Just remembered we tried some Bulgarian barrels a couple of years ago. Similar to the Hungarian, and again, not worth continued purchase, IMO.

SonomaBouliste


quality posts: 234 Private Messages SonomaBouliste
joelsisk wrote:great blog, Peter! And glad woot fixed the post so we're finally able to comment.

I'm surprised we don't hear more about South American oak... I'd think it would be much cheaper to import... though perhaps the cooperage is the real issue?



Wood selection, aging and cooperage are the real issues. I don't know if appropriate oak species even exist in South America. I do know that they use both French and American oak in Chile and Argentina.

mother


quality posts: 15 Private Messages mother

So alrighty, what about other species of wood? Why just oak?

SonomaBouliste


quality posts: 234 Private Messages SonomaBouliste
yumitori wrote:So, left field questions... What do you do with 'used up' barrels?

Do other wineries buy 'vintage' barrels? Or do you just manage your stock so you get as much out of them as possible? Then what?



We actually buy used barrels from other wineries from time to time. Wineries that use a lot of new oak sell their once or twice used barrels to other wineries. Due to our winemaking style and product mix, by the time we're done with barrels they are sold to be cut in half for large flower pots.

Here are some current listed prices for used French oak barrels.
2007: $175-300
2006: $40-200
2005: $40-150
2004: $40-80

SonomaBouliste


quality posts: 234 Private Messages SonomaBouliste
mother wrote:So alrighty, what about other species of wood? Why just oak?



Other species can and have been used. Chestnut comes to mind. Oak is the wood of choice because it is abundant, easy to work, seldom leaks, and (by tradition) has nice flavors.

True Balsamic vinegar (like the one sold on wine.woot) is aged in a series of barrels made from different woods. I'll leave it to someone else to research and list the different types.

andyduncan


quality posts: 32 Private Messages andyduncan
SonomaBouliste wrote: In blind tastings of barrel trials it is no longer easy, and in some cases virtually impossible, to tell which barrels are French oak and which are American oak.



So you're saying it's possible to reduce the vanillin transfer to a level where American Oaked wines don't have any more of that marshmallow/vanilla/caramel/whiskey flavor than french oaked ones do?

I'm putting WD's kids through college.

JOATMON


quality posts: 19 Private Messages JOATMON
SonomaBouliste wrote:Other species can and have been used. Chestnut comes to mind. Oak is the wood of choice because it is abundant, easy to work, seldom leaks, and (by tradition) has nice flavors.



And don't forget redwood. As in wine vats.

Juvie: 30+24+4; Sellout: 6+7+0
Rags: 3+2+3
Drunk: 69+94+15 wine, 20+29+4 non-wine
Rugrat: 0+0+0; Refunded: 2+3+1
(as of 2011-03-02)

wombativ


quality posts: 1 Private Messages wombativ
SonomaBouliste wrote:Other species can and have been used. Chestnut comes to mind. Oak is the wood of choice because it is abundant, easy to work, seldom leaks, and (by tradition) has nice flavors.

True Balsamic vinegar (like the one sold on wine.woot) is aged in a series of barrels made from different woods. I'll leave it to someone else to research and list the different types.




My understanding was that white oak also forms significantly more tyloses than other species. These tyloses plug the xylem of the tree, making it very water resistant (leak proof). Of course, this is just the scientific explanation for what coopers discovered long ago just from experience.

gcdyersb


quality posts: 141 Private Messages gcdyersb
JOATMON wrote:And don't forget redwood. As in wine vats.



I was wondering about redwood. Concerns with destruction of old growth forest aside, a BIG Napa Cab aged in redwood seems somehow appropriate, very American.

Cabernet Franc: it's not just for blending! It's also for blogging.

wombativ


quality posts: 1 Private Messages wombativ
andyduncan wrote:So you're saying it's possible to reduce the vanillin transfer to a level where American Oaked wines don't have any more of that marshmallow/vanilla/caramel/whiskey flavor than french oaked ones do?



There is significant variation in the level of these compounds found in each oak tree. In general studies have shown American oak (Quercus alba) to contain more oak lactones than the European oak species (sessilis and robur), which are the compounds that cause most of the flavors you mentioned (interestingly, vanillin doesn't cause vanilla flavor). In addition, cooperages can help to control some of these flavors by controlling their seasoning process, toasting process, toasting temp, etc.

wombativ


quality posts: 1 Private Messages wombativ
SonomaBouliste wrote:

Here are some current listed prices for used French oak barrels.
2007: $175-300
2006: $40-200
2005: $40-150
2004: $40-80



When I was at Unified this year, I saw one company with a table that did nothing but buy used barrels. I don't think they said what they used them for however. Outside of selling whole used barrels, I've mostly seem them in flowerpot or folk art form.

In addition, caution is generally advised when buying used barrels, as I've heard a lot of rumors about the used barrel market being a place wineries unload their Brettanomyces saturated supply . . . I'm not saying don't buy them, just make sure you're comfortable with your source.

yumitori


quality posts: 22 Private Messages yumitori
wombativ wrote:
When I was at Unified this year, I saw one company with a table that did nothing but buy used barrels. I don't think they said what they used them for however. Outside of selling whole used barrels, I've mostly seem them in flowerpot or folk art form.



This last weekend In Wine Country had a segment on a furniture maker who recycles barrels into chairs and tables and such. Most 'wine barrel furniture' is atrociously kitchy, but I like some of his work.



SonomaBouliste


quality posts: 234 Private Messages SonomaBouliste
andyduncan wrote:So you're saying it's possible to reduce the vanillin transfer to a level where American Oaked wines don't have any more of that marshmallow/vanilla/caramel/whiskey flavor than french oaked ones do?



Vanillin is more a product of the toasting regime, and I find higher amounts in barrels from some of our French coopers. The aromatic characters that annoy me with some American oak barrels are more reminiscent of coconut and dill. The best coopers of American oak (IMHO) have developed stave sources and toasting regimes that virtually eliminate those aromas and also provide subtle tannin structure.

SonomaBouliste


quality posts: 234 Private Messages SonomaBouliste
JOATMON wrote:And don't forget redwood. As in wine vats.



I haven't heard of anyone trying to make barrels (as opposed to cylidrical tanks) from redwood. I don't believe it is supple and strong enough to be bent that much without cracking.

canonizer


quality posts: 22 Private Messages canonizer
gcdyersb wrote:I was wondering about redwood. Concerns with destruction of old growth forest aside, a BIG Napa Cab aged in redwood seems somehow appropriate, very American.



but redwood is a conifir...

signed.

Lighter


quality posts: 10 Private Messages Lighter

At that time of year when you sit down and work at your barrel budget, what makes you make your choices? Where is the left brain / right brain balance?

And, when do you make those decisions? Do you do all your barrels at once, or when the juice flows, or what?

SonomaBouliste


quality posts: 234 Private Messages SonomaBouliste
wombativ wrote:My understanding was that white oak also forms significantly more tyloses than other species. These tyloses plug the xylem of the tree, making it very water resistant (leak proof). Of course, this is just the scientific explanation for what coopers discovered long ago just from experience.



This is true, although we occaisionally see sieve tube leaks (more in French oak). The more important physical aspect of oak regarding water tightness is the prominent rays (heavily suberized "waxy" vessels that are arranged like spokes in a wheeel). European oak staves are split parallel to the rays - otherwise "seepage" becomes an issue. The denser structure of American oak obviates this process; American oak staves are quarter sawn, resulting in less waste.

Lighter


quality posts: 10 Private Messages Lighter

Some mechanical questions.

Do you take the heads on and off when you are manipulating the barrel? (Back to the flour and water paste question.)

Do the darned things break?

What sort of leakage is normal?

Is this fork lift activity? - How often do the barrels get moved around?

SonomaBouliste


quality posts: 234 Private Messages SonomaBouliste
wombativ wrote:When I was at Unified this year, I saw one company with a table that did nothing but buy used barrels. I don't think they said what they used them for however. Outside of selling whole used barrels, I've mostly seem them in flowerpot or folk art form.

In addition, caution is generally advised when buying used barrels, as I've heard a lot of rumors about the used barrel market being a place wineries unload their Brettanomyces saturated supply . . . I'm not saying don't buy them, just make sure you're comfortable with your source.




It is indeed necessary to use extreme caution in buying used barrels. When we buy used barrels I always know the source very well and it's almost always white wine barrels, where Brett is rare.

BTW: Who are you, do I know you, what winery? Send me a private message if you don't want to "out" yourself.

SonomaBouliste


quality posts: 234 Private Messages SonomaBouliste
Lighter wrote:At that time of year when you sit down and work at your barrel budget, what makes you make your choices? Where is the left brain / right brain balance?

And, when do you make those decisions? Do you do all your barrels at once, or when the juice flows, or what?



We always do comparative tastings of the different barrels we use in each wine. For the high-end wines the decision is based solely on what will make the best wine. Economics does come into play for other wines, as explained in the Paradigm Shift blog (link provided at the bottom of the current blog).

SonomaBouliste


quality posts: 234 Private Messages SonomaBouliste
Lighter wrote:Some mechanical questions.

Do you take the heads on and off when you are manipulating the barrel? (Back to the flour and water paste question.)

Do the darned things break?

What sort of leakage is normal?

Is this fork lift activity? - How often do the barrels get moved around?



Whoa, lots of questions.

The only reasons to remove barrel heads are to insert "barrel replica" staves, shave or otherwise remove wood, replace head staves, or barrel ferment red grapes. Yes, flour paste is used when replacing the heads.

Staves can break, especially if a full barrel is dropped. The most common break is at the bung stave, which is weaker because of the two inch hole drilled in it.

Zero leakage is normal. Any leak that is noticed gets repaired asap.

Stackable and "forkliftable" steel barrel racks are pretty standard these days. We switched to them about ten years ago, from hand "pyramid stacked" barrels. Barrels usually are moved every time you rack a wine - in our case that's every three months or so for red wines.

gcdyersb


quality posts: 141 Private Messages gcdyersb
canonizer wrote:but redwood is a conifir...



Good! We can throw in some pine cones for additional flavor extraction.

I've seen people go grocery shopping with a giant SUV. Using redwood parallels with this image in my mind. Not necessarily the right fit, but chosen because it's BIG.

Cabernet Franc: it's not just for blending! It's also for blogging.

paryb


quality posts: 17 Private Messages paryb

Several years ago I had a greek white wine in a greek restaraunt that was coopered in pine barrels...holy apcray, it was awful.

It was like chugging pine-sol.

189 Bottles of wine from Woot so far!
$3319.36or a mere $17.56 per bottle.

wine.woot Keeping Paryb in the red(and sometimes white) since 5/9/2007

SonomaBouliste


quality posts: 234 Private Messages SonomaBouliste
paryb wrote:Several years ago I had a greek white wine in a greek restaraunt that was coopered in pine barrels...holy apcray, it was awful.

It was like chugging pine-sol.



Retsina - they actually add pine resin. This, like oaked wines, is an acquired taste, but generally harder to acquire

wombativ


quality posts: 1 Private Messages wombativ
SonomaBouliste wrote:It is indeed necessary to use extreme caution in buying used barrels. When we buy used barrels I always know the source very well and it's almost always white wine barrels, where Brett is rare.

BTW: Who are you, do I know you, what winery? Send me a private message if you don't want to "out" yourself.



I'm the worst kind of "expert" . . . an academic with little direct applicable experience!!!

I'm a biochemical engineer (specializing in vaccine and therapeutic protein fermentations and purification) turned prospective wine maker getting a V&E Master's degree at UC Davis. I will be taking the Fall quarter off to work the harvest up in Napa this year though, so at least I'll have some practical experience behind me before I finish my thesis and graduate.

Now I'm off to proctor and grade freshman chemistry exams (the joys of being a TA) before studying for my last final of the school year . . .

-jeff

SonomaBouliste


quality posts: 234 Private Messages SonomaBouliste
wombativ wrote:I'm the worst kind of "expert" . . . an academic with little direct applicable experience!!!

I'm a biochemical engineer (specializing in vaccine and therapeutic protein fermentations and purification) turned prospective wine maker getting a V&E Master's degree at UC Davis. I will be taking the Fall quarter off to work the harvest up in Napa this year though, so at least I'll have some practical experience behind me before I finish my thesis and graduate.

Now I'm off to proctor and grade freshman chemistry exams (the joys of being a TA) before studying for my last final of the school year . . .

-jeff



You're very well informed - either you're doing a lot of outside reading / research or the UCD curriculum is a lot more practical and relevant than when I went there.

Best of luck with your career move, and I'm sure you'll enjoy crush a heckuva lot more than grading freshman chem exams!

wombativ


quality posts: 1 Private Messages wombativ
SonomaBouliste wrote:You're very well informed - either you're doing a lot of outside reading / research or the UCD curriculum is a lot more practical and relevant than when I went there.

Best of luck with your career move, and I'm sure you'll enjoy crush a heckuva lot more than grading freshman chem exams!



Thanks. And, as Grandpa Simpson said when Mr Burns asked him if he was trying to distract him or just senile . . .

"A little bit of column A, a little bit of column B"

Its a lot easier learning minutiae when you have a really strong chem/biochem/math background and don't have to spend as much time worrying about what we're tested on.

PetiteSirah


quality posts: 79 Private Messages PetiteSirah
wombativ wrote:Thanks. And, as Grandpa Simpson said when Mr Burns asked him if he was trying to distract him or just senile . . .

"A little bit of column A, a little bit of column B"

Its a lot easier learning minutiae when you have a really strong chem/biochem/math background and don't have to spend as much time worrying about what we're tested on.



+1

Hail the victor, the king without flaw
Salute your new master ... Petite Sirah!


"Who has two thumbs and loves Petite Sirah?" ThisGuy!

zmanonice


quality posts: 21 Private Messages zmanonice
SonomaBouliste wrote:Wood selection, aging and cooperage are the real issues. I don't know if appropriate oak species even exist in South America. I do know that they use both French and American oak in Chile and Argentina.



Hi Peter,

Thanks for the great article. We just got back from Chile and were fortunate to spend a day in Colchagua Valley and visited two wineries.

The first, Viu Manent used a mixture of medium toast and medium plus toast barrels. All were French made. The second, Casa Lapostelle uses only medium toast French barrels. Do you experiment with different toast levels, and if so, does it vary by variety, and what are you trying to achieve?

At Casa Lapostelle, they showed us the difference between American and French barrels. The American had a courser feel to it, while the French was smoother, with a tighter pore structure. Is it safe to assume that the American barrels would be more porous and would impart more of the oak flavor given the same amount of aging time?

They also had five barrels they bought at auction that were made from a 300+ year old French oak tree. The wood was as smooth as a baby's butt. They didn't tell us which of their wines they were aging in those barrels.

Again, thanks for all of your postings. I find them very informative.

Z

SonomaBouliste


quality posts: 234 Private Messages SonomaBouliste
zmanonice wrote:Hi Peter,

Thanks for the great article. We just got back from Chile and were fortunate to spend a day in Colchagua Valley and visited two wineries.

The first, Viu Manent used a mixture of medium toast and medium plus toast barrels. All were French made. The second, Casa Lapostelle uses only medium toast French barrels. Do you experiment with different toast levels, and if so, does it vary by variety, and what are you trying to achieve?

At Casa Lapostelle, they showed us the difference between American and French barrels. The American had a courser feel to it, while the French was smoother, with a tighter pore structure. Is it safe to assume that the American barrels would be more porous and would impart more of the oak flavor given the same amount of aging time?

They also had five barrels they bought at auction that were made from a 300+ year old French oak tree. The wood was as smooth as a baby's butt. They didn't tell us which of their wines they were aging in those barrels.

Again, thanks for all of your postings. I find them very informative.

Z



Yes, we use different toast levels. It does vary by grape variety and personal taste. It gets a bit complicated in that one cooper's medium toast may be heavier than another cooper's, so it is cooper dependent, plus there are other designations like "medium toast long". Over the years I have usually asked new (to us) coopers for their "house toast" initially. I'm saying "Give me what you think you do best." We'll either find that works well with one or more of our wines, or we'll critique the barrels and let them suggest modifications. Toasting technique is one of several variables between cooperages, so one can't just say that one specific toast level works best with any given wine.

It would be safe only to broadly generalize about American oak extracting more readily. There is huge overlap in average growth ring size (grain) of both French and American oak, dependent on soil, rainfall regimes and temperature. For example, Limousin oak tends to have coarser grain than Nevers and Missouri oak coarser grain than Minnesota, with the emphasis on "tends". This is why attention to wood selection in the forest, at the stave mill and at the cooperage trumps source. Some of the French coopers are doing away with forest designation in favor of average grain size designation.

Oak trees have to get pretty big (and old) before they are used for barrels. I don't know what the minimum or average ages are, but I would guess maybe 100-200 years is typical.

yumitori


quality posts: 22 Private Messages yumitori
SonomaBouliste wrote:
Oak trees have to get pretty big (and old) before they are used for barrels. I don't know what the minimum or average ages are, but I would guess maybe 100-200 years is typical.



Which raises the question, how's the supply of barrel-worthy oak holding up? Is that why we are seeing significantly increased prices and more barrels from eastern Europe and elsewhere, or is it more about demand outstripping production?


SonomaBouliste


quality posts: 234 Private Messages SonomaBouliste
yumitori wrote:Which raises the question, how's the supply of barrel-worthy oak holding up? Is that why we are seeing significantly increased prices and more barrels from eastern Europe and elsewhere, or is it more about demand outstripping production?



Virtually all of the barrel quality oak in France comes from managed forests, most of them government owned. If you've driven much in France you've probably seen managed forests, with trees of uniform size planted in rows. They hold annual auctions, limiting the amount sold. This maintains long term supply and keeps prices high.

canonizer


quality posts: 22 Private Messages canonizer
Because wine evaporates through the staves, barrels must be “topped up” regularly unless you want to make vinegar or sherry.



OK, as long as we're addressing private concerns, where do you get the wine to top off the barrels? Wouldn't it be in other barrels...

signed.

SonomaBouliste


quality posts: 234 Private Messages SonomaBouliste
canonizer wrote:OK, as long as we're addressing private concerns, where do you get the wine to top off the barrels? Wouldn't it be in other barrels...




Another tour question is "What are all those beer kegs for?" Less than full barrel quantities must also be stored in full containers. So called breakdown cooperage consists of half barrels (30 gal.), beer kegs (15.5 gal.) and glass carboys (aka demijohns) of varying capacity. A short term alternative is to use a non-reactive gas such as nitrogen or argon to displace air (approx. 20% oxygen) from the head space of a partial container.
When I worked at a winery that made hundreds of barrels of the same wine we used nitrogen pressure to top from a full sized barrel and just left the barrel tight bunged until the next topping. We'd use a whole barrel for topping within a few weeks.